Mad Love October 12, 2020
1 Hr., 8 Mins.
ad Love (1935), directed by Karl Freund (1932’s The Mummy), is ecstatically creepy. It’s a horror movie that delights in the macabre as much as a comedy luxuriates in a good laugh. In the movie, characteristically unnerving Peter Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, whom we never hear the first name of and who more than meets one’s expectations for the horror genre's beloved mad
physician. Über-successful in his field, Gogol has become known around town (the movie is set in Paris) as the guy you go to when a standard-fare medical practitioner tells you that a broken something can't be fixed. A Dr. Johnson claiming that after that car accident you’re never going to walk again? Go to Dr. Gogol and he will not only fix your spine — he'll make sure that once healed, you'll walk with more springs in your steps than you had before.
Before we know him as a wünderkind, though, we know Gogol as a creep — an obsessive fan of Yvonne Orlac (Francis Drake), a raven-haired beauty who successfully performs in a local Grand Guignol-style stage show. Gogol is so enamored of her that a wax figure made in Yvonne’s image sits in his office, frozen forever as the character she is most recently celebrated for playing. Gogol is shattered to find out at the beginning of the movie that Yvonne is retiring soon to move to England with her acclaimed pianist husband Stephen (Colin Clive). Then he’s delighted (yikes) when Stephen is in a train accident that leaves his hands crushed.
Naturally, Gogol is the only person capable of either fixing them or victoriously attaching another's hands to Stephen's mangled wrists. More time with Yvonne! (Something she’s not happy about — it took just a meet-and-greet for her to decide she’d never like to see the off-putting Gogol ever again.) How is it going to play out, though, when Yvonne and Stephen find out that Gogol has sewn the hands of a recently guillotined murderer — specifically one with a penchant for knife-throwing — to Stephen? Expectedly for a movie like Mad Love, the new hands have “a mind of their own." You can guess why this presents a problem.
Mad Love is nonsensical on most fronts, and not just when it comes to things like hands having minds of their own rather than doing what the brain commands them to. It’s unclear what Gogol exactly wants with Yvonne once he’s able to ingratiate himself into her world. It's also unclear if Gogol's decision to give Stephen a murderer's hands was loaded or if he genuinely didn't realize that such a move would severely limit his piano skill but turn him into an excellent knife-thrower with poor self-control. But I don’t think it’s all that important, watching Mad Love, to try to untangle its knot of motivations and strange narrative turns. It’s a film best watched the way you might experience someone else’s nightmare: understanding that you won’t have very much control over what happens and that something not making sense doesn’t mean it won’t still viscerally unsettle.
Freund’s direction is remarkably eerie — boosted by his shrewd use of surrealistic transitional shots, like the preludes featured in the Creepshow
adaptation of 1982. Mad Love is a visually stunning movie (critic Pauline Kael was convinced Orson Welles grafted much of its look on to his own Citizen Kane, released six years later), which is to be expected: Freund was far more prolific as a cinematographer than he was a director, notably shooting movies like The Last Laugh (1924), Metropolis (1927), Dracula (1931), and Camille
(1936). (Mad Love was his last directorial foray.)
The film is at its best when it lets Lorre, at the peak of his powers, ham it up as the fanatical doctor. Lorre seems well-aware of the penetrative quality of his tarsier eyes and his uncanny, goblin-esque build: he astutely uses both to amplify the tacit threat in his performance. There’s a ghostly glassiness in his stare; when he moves, he’s like a little imp in the shadows that wants to create mayhem but knows now isn’t quite the time to jump out. He’ll pick a later moment to let loose — all the better to maximize the impact.
Lorre releases all his menacing potential energy at the end of the film during a bravura climax. But the finest moment for him in the movie, I think, is when he intimidates someone while pretending to be the reanimated corpse of the dead murderer. Fitted with robotic-looking fake hands and an insect-like neck brace to make it seem like someone’s screwed his cut-off head back on, he faux-performs as the undead with such chutzpah that this seems like this is his natural state. At the end of the scene, Lorre maniacally cackles like everyone — and no one — is listening. Like other horror greats in their element, from Vincent Price to Boris Karloff, you sense how much fun Lorre is having while also temporarily fully believing in him. B+